First, two Holocaust-related pieces that appeared in PMLA (2003, 118.3). Of late I've been stubbornly reading and laboriously grousing about PMLA [Proceedings of the Modern Language Association]. I keep promising to praise the good as well as knock the bad. So here's some good. In response to the occasional editorial call for 'little-known documents' we have Letters from a Librarian: Lost and Found in Vilna, a bundle of about 15 pages of letters by Ona Simaite (introduced and translated by Julija Skys.) Here is a brief biographical entry on Simaite.
She was a member of "the beloved profession", as she endearingly puts it; that is, a librarian. Oddly, her position enabled her to undertake truly heroic efforts on behalf of Jews in the Vilnius ghetto. Like most libraries in eastern Europe, the Vilnius University stacks were always carefully controlled; even today no browsing is allowed. Access to the archive is possible only through the mediation of a gatekeeper. Simaite was the gatekeeper of her time, and the closed, ghettolike structure of the stacks allowed her library to preserve not only books but people as well. It's a moving story. But the letters are rather pedestrian - like most personal letters, I suppose. She suffers hardships and anxieties of the sort everyone must have: food shortages, bad health, concern for friends and family. She keeps quiet about "those people's business" for obvious reasons. So there are pages of relatively commonplace stuff from the hand of this astonishingly person, living in horrific circumstances. Then there are the heartbreaking passages:
At work, lists of Jewish authors whose books will be taken out of the libraries are hurriedly being prepared. Also to be taken out, without exception, are Soviet books and those by progressive Lithuanian authors. Sadly, never before have people read Jewish writers as they do now. It is a shame that they didn't do this earlier and that they didn't get to know this rich literature. Those who know anything at all about that literature are now constantly expected to hand over information about it. As people get to know this people's literature, they marvel at its richness and beauty.
A few days ago Jews were forbidden to give birth. Now the children who are born have to be killed, and women who become pregnant must have operations.
The second PMLA piece is the full text of the Nobel lecture, "Heureka!" by the 2002 recipient for the literature prize, the Hungarian author, Imre Kertész, an Auschwitz survivor. (Here it is, available at the Nobel site.)
I havent read the novel for which Kertesz won, Fateless, but Ive read another, Kaddish For A Child Not Born; which, oddly, I dont find unreadably depressing even though I usually can't bear truly depressing books, and this one is about nothing but the authors desire to die; or, failing that, not bring another into the world. (Hence the title.)
On the Nobel site youll find some interesting critical discussion. Kertesz' novels get contrasted with those Primo Levi, an obvious model for comparison. But the mordant, cerebral sadness of the speech reminds me quite a bit of Levi. The fiction if Kaddish is fiction; I fear its autobiography ranges from sardonic to lacerating. A bit like Thomas Bernhardt but even more clinically depressed. Portrait of a man who was unhappy from childhood, apparently engineered and raised for sadness and alienation from others, who was sent to Auschwitz and lived. The only thing that makes this self-portrait bearable, indeed strangely companionable for me, at least is a strong current of psychologically-observed philosophy running through. For example, when he runs into a professional philosopher: The philosopher was nearing me in a pondering mood; I could see it in the slightly inclined pose of his head, on which his rascally visored cap perched; he approached like a humorous highwayman with a few drinks down his gullet, pondering whether to knock me down or content himself with the loot. Have you ever read a better description of an academic argument about to get picked?
Kertesz, like Levi, seems to have a humane, philosophic-scientific eye softened by tears to the point where it focuses on art.
I'll quote a few passages from the speech. First, about becoming a writer 'here' - i.e. in communist Hungary; 'actually existing socialism' the sorry reward for managing to survive:
Here the notion that the world is an objective reality existing independently of us was an axiomatic philosophical truth. Whereas I, on a lovely spring day in 1955, suddenly came to the realization that there exists only one reality, and that is me, my own life, this fragile gift bestowed for an uncertain time, which had been seized, expropriated by alien forces, and circumscribed, marked up, branded - and which I had to take back from "History", this dreadful Moloch, because it was mine and mine alone, and I had to manage it accordingly.
A profoundly depressive personality survives Auschwitz only to find itself behind the Iron Curtain. And:
Why do we write? Here, too, I was lucky, for it never occurred to me that when it came to this question, one had a choice. I described a relevant incident in my novel Failure. I stood in the empty corridor of an office building, and all that happened was that from the direction of another, intersecting corridor I heard echoing footsteps. A strange excitement took hold of me. The sound grew louder and louder, and though they were clearly the steps of a single, unseen person, I suddenly had the feeling that I was hearing the footsteps of thousands. It was as if a huge procession was pounding its way down that corridor. And at that point I perceived the irresistible attraction of those footfalls, that marching multitude. In a single moment I understood the ecstasy of self-abandonment, the intoxicating pleasure of melting into the crowd - what Nietzsche called, in a different context though relevantly for this moment too, a Dionysian experience. It was almost as though some physical force were pushing me, pulling me toward the unseen marching columns. I felt I had to stand back and press against the wall, to keep me from yielding to this magnetic, seductive force.
I have related this intense moment as I (had) experienced it. The source from which it sprang, like a vision, seemed somewhere outside of me, not in me. Every artist is familiar with such moments. At one time they were called sudden inspirations. Still, I wouldn't classify the experience as an artistic revelation, but rather as an existential self-discovery. What I gained from it was not my art - its tools would not be mine for some time - but my life, which I had almost lost. The experience was about solitude, a more difficult life, and the things I have already mentioned - the need to step out of the mesmerizing crowd, out of History, which renders you faceless and fateless. To my horror, I realized that ten years after I had returned from the Nazi concentration camps, and halfway still under the awful spell of Stalinist terror, all that remained of the whole experience were a few muddled impressions, a few anecdotes. Like it didn't even happen to me, as people are wont to say."
Nothing supernatural, he hastens to add:
Mysticism and unreasoning rapture of all kinds are alien to me. So when I speak of a vision, I must mean something real that assumes a supernatural guise - the sudden, almost violent eruption of a slowly ripening thought within me. Something conveyed in the ancient cry, "Eureka!" - "I've got it!" But what?
I once said that so-called Socialism for me was the petite madeleine cake that, dipped into Proust's tea, evoked in him the flavor of bygone years.
This isn't to say that Kertész is a counter-example to Adorno on 'no poetry after'. He has what I suppose must be Adorno's thought: "What I discovered in Auschwitz is the human condition, the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his two-thousand-year-old moral and cultural history." Even so, Kertész talks as though it was Auschwitz that gave him the stuff for a eureka experience; one that made him, not a scientist, but a poet. It is really very very strange to say: "Auschwitz, Eureka!" Even, as I am sure is the case, with a sardonic twist of the lip. So his career has a bizarre upward arc, though he seems anxious to warn us off from consoling morals drawn from that fact:
But let us consider that in this difficult-to-follow life journey, in this "career" of mine, if I could so put it, there is something stirring, something absurd, something which cannot be pondered without one being touched by a belief in an otherworldly order, in providence, in metaphysical justice - in other words, without falling into the trap of self-deception, and thus running aground, going under, severing the deep and tortuous ties with the millions who perished and who never knew mercy.
There are a great many passages in Kaddish where the philosophical detachment of the Nobel acceptance speech - the wry 'Eureka!' - is not maintained.
Occasionally, like a drab weasel left over after a thorough process of extermination, I run through the city. I listen to a noise, notice an image here or there, as if the smell of occasional memories form the outside set siege to my petrified, sluggish senses. Here and there I stop at a house, a street corner, frightened, with widened nostrils, I look around me horrified, I want to flee but something holds me back. Under my feet the sewer lines roar as if the filthy flow of memories tried to break out of its hidden channels to sweep me away. Let it pass; I am prepared. In my last great effort to pull myself together I have presented my frail and stubborn life - I have presented it so taht with the baggage of this life in my raised hands I may go and in the dark stream of the fast-flowing black warmth
I may drown
let me drown
My last text is the focus of this post, I suppose, a novel I would dearly like to be able to discuss well. It is a Holocaust novel I read several years ago but which has stuck with me most powerfully: See Under: LOVE, by David Grossman.
Whenever I see lists of 'best books that other serious book readers quite possibly haven't read or even heard of' I want to put down Grossman's novel. I suppose his is one of my five or so favorite novels. Not that he's obscure. He's a well-known Israeli author and (I think) journalist, won heaps of prizes and been translated into dozens of languages and well-reviewed in the NY Times, etc. But you know how it is with 10-year old serious novels. (For the record, I don't know anything about Israeli literature really, or much about Grossman. Just read this novel when a friend gave it to me. Read his first novel, too; didnt think it was quite as good.
First, a text within the text. A troubled Israeli boy, Momik, is trying to solve, in unfortunate ways, the riddle of his mad, broken grandfather - a camp survivor suddenly reunited with his struggling family in the 50's. One of the only clues Momik has to the mystery is a page from an old children's literature magazine, Little Lights. Grandfather Anshel was a childrens author before the war.
THE CHILDREN OF THE HEART Rescue the Red Sk
A story in fifty chapters by the popular auth
Chapter the Twenty-seventh
O constant Reader! In our previous episode, we saw the Children of the Heart swiftly borne upon the wings of the "Leap in Time" machine: destination - the lesser luminary called the moon. This machine was the product of the craft and intelligence of the wise Sergei, whose mastery of technics and the currents of electricality in the case of the magnificent machine we did so fully elucidate in our foregoing chapter, whither we refer our Constant Reader for the sundry particulars effaced from memory. And so, aboard the machine, arm in arm with the Children of the Order, with Red Men of the Navajo tribe and their proud king, who rejoiced in the name: Red Slipper (mayhap our Amiable Reader knows of the Red Skin's predilection for suchlike names fantastical, though we may smile to hear them!). And together they fled the truculence of the martial men who would drive them from the land of their fathers, chief among these the sanguinous native of the country of England, John Lee Stewart. Thus they betook themselves to the moon for shelter and succor in their distress, in the hope likewise of turning a new leaf in the copybook of their wretched lives. Lo! The wondrous machine traverses the stars, and breaches the rings of Saturn, streaked with gossamer, swift as light! And on they venture while the amiable Otto Brig, first and foremost among the Children of the Heart, to soothe the spirits of the Red Skins (so lately delivered from the hands of their enemies, and whisked aloft in the chariot of fire) rehearsed for them the glorious deeds of the Children of the Heart, anent our Faithful Reader is informed to the last letter and with which we shall not tire him at this time. And Otto's young sister, blithe Paula of the golden hair, prepared a repast for the company to refresh their troubled minds and flagging spirits. And Albert Fried, the silent boy, was just then sitting privily at the helm, nobly pondering whether humankind should ever set foot upon the moon, since as the Amiable Reader knows so well, Albert Fried was conversant with every sort of creature from lice eggs to horned buffaloes, and likewise the language of each, as was King Solomon of yore, and he hastened to find his small copybook in which to record the scientific facts he would observe in short order, for our friend Albert Fried is a lover of order, and it well behooves the younger readers amongst us to follow his example in this and other matters. And as he was writing, the dulcet murmur of a flute fell upon his ears, and this so astonished him that he rose to his feet and approached the hall of passage. In the doorway he stood, bewildered by the sight which met his eyes: for there stood Harotian, the small Armenian fellow, a wizard skilled in every work of wonder and of sorcery, piping for the company, whilst the melody he played so nimbly upon his flute becalmed the anxious hearts of the Red Skins and allayed their fears. The piping was balm to them, and small wonder: for little Harotian himself had long ago been rescued by the Children of the Heart when the Turns of Turkestan plundered a village in the hills of Armenia, and Harotian alone was spared, as fully recounted in the adventuresome tale entitled "The Children of the Heart Rescue the People of Armenia," and the young Harotian was touched to the heart by the sadness of these voyagers. And meanwhile, as Sergei was standing watch on deck, a heavy cloud descended, for he grasped in his hand the horn of vision that magnifies two-hundred-fold, and screamed: "Woe is he who faces such calamity! Flee! To the moon!" And they beheld it, and were filled with horror. Otto their leader looked through the horn of vision, and his heart stopped, his face turned ashen, while Paula clasped his hand, screaming: "For God's sake, Otto, what is it that you saw?" But Otto's tongue was pinched and doughlike, and no reply could he make, though his face bore testimony to the evil which had befallen them all, and horror, perhaps Death, lurked in the window.
Part I of the book is Momik's story. Part III is a tale of Anshel Wasserman in the camp. All this is still narrated by Momik, seen through Momik eyes, though he is grown now. Parts II-IV are all, in effect, text within the text, written by Momik, who grows to be a writer of fantastic tales like his grandfather.
When the third attempt to kill Anshel Wasserman came to naught, the Germans sent him running to camp headquarters with a very young officer named Hoppfler at his heels yelling, "Schnell." I can see them now, as they leave the gorunds of the lower camp, where the gas chambers are, and approach the two barbed-wire fences concealed by hedges between which new arrivals are foced to run naked past a double file of Ukrainians, who set dogs on them and pound them with clubs. The inmates call this route the Schlauch, or tube, and the Germans with their peculiar humor call it Himmelstrasse - the Heavenly Way.
Anshel Wasserman wears a gown of gorgeous silk, and a large watch on a chain that bounces against his chest as he runs. He is bowed and wizened, with a wispy beard and an incipient hump on the back of his neck. Though I've looked through hundreds of pictures of concentration-camp prisoners, I never saw anyone dressed like that before. Now they pass the parade grounds and stop in front of the commander's barracks. Wasserman is panting . . . The door opens and they enter the barracks. And there stands Herr Neigel. Well, well. Not at all as I imagined him over the years - fat and bestial, a butcher with a cruel grin. He is rugged-looking, though; tall and muscular, with a well-developed cranium, visibly balding, despite his close-cropped black hair, with two deep inlets over the forehead. His face is unusually large, his features elongated, with dark patches of stubble where the razor missed. His mouth is small and tense, and there's a kind of aggressive contempt in the corenrs of his eyes. The overall impression he makes is of a strong man who wishes to avoid attention. In my childhood, Grandfather always called him by his civilian title, Herr Neigel. A certain rapport must have been struck between them at some point, or was it a bargain? And what did Neigel call Grandfather? Dreck Jude? No, I don't think so. His face attests a dry pragmatism incompatible with dreck Judge. He looks up from his orderly desk, suppressing an ill-humored scowl at this interupption. "Yes, Understurmführer Hoppfler?" he says, his voice loud and measured. Hopplfer reports a strange case. Neigel quickly interrogates him ("Did you try shooting?" "Yes, Commander." "Did you try the truck?" "Yes, Commander." "And gas, you say you tried gas?" "Yes, Commander, it all began with the gas." "And what about the others? Maybe the gas was defective?" "But no, Commander! The others died as usual. No irregularities, except for him").
Neigel groans at this waste of his time, stands up, smooths his trouser creases, and begins to fiddle absentmindedly with the silver medal on his lapel. Somewhat wearily he asks, "Is this some kind of joke, Understurmführer Hoppfler?" But when the younger officer launches into a garbled explanation, Neigel dismisses him with a wave of a finger and an order to return a few minutes later after the short examination has been completed, "to remove the body." Neigel watches the young man leave the way people of a certain age watch an ambitious young man who never does anything right.
He draws a gun from his holster. A shiny black toy with a mag - Wait! Oh, no! He's going to shoot Grandfather! I turn away. I look at the military placards on the wall behind the desk: THE FÜHRER COMMANDS - WE OBEY, RESPONSIBILITY DOWNWARD, OBEDIENCE UPWARD. And then Neigel steps forward and puts the gun to Grandfather's temple and I hear myself scream out in fear with Grandfather, and the gun goes off, and Grandfather says inwardly, "It was like a fly buzzing between my ears," and the wooden stag head over the door falls down, nebuch, and one of its horns cracks. "Sholem aleichem, Schleimeleh, how you have changed, though I recognize you all the same. Hush, not a word. Time is running out and we have much to do. We have a story to tell."
This is how he addressed me. Not in his own voice, of course, I wrote "Grandfather says inwardly" because it's more accurate. His voice sounded like the voice I heard under water: like the faint crinkling of a thousand broken shells. Not like speech exactly, more like a steady flux of drab gray verbiage without the vigor of speech, yet closely resembling written language. Grandfather Wasserman spoke to me in the language he wrote, in the words that crumbled out of that torn yellow sheet of an old children's magazine, preserved since the beginning of the century among Grandma Henny's belongings. This was the first time I had ever heard him speak about his story. The story was really his life, and he always had to write it again from the beginning. Once when he was a little discouraged he told me he was rolling the story uphill like Sisyphus. Then he apologized for never having enough time or energy to listen to my story, but as he saw it, all stories were cut from the same cloth, "except that sometimes you have to push the stone uphill, and at other times yourself are the cumbersome stone."
But now the German is incredulous: he looks from Grandfather to the gun, and twists the old man's head this way and that in search of a bullet hole. Later Neigel asks dryly in fluent Polish (his mother was Polskdeutsch, and, of course, the SS language course), "Are you getting smart with me, farshivy zhid?"
These two passages are linked and very much belong side by side. On the other hand, placing them side by side may produce a misleading impression of dubious simplicity. Maybe you are thinking: 'I hope this guy Grossman has not written a book not even a book within a book - in which a lovable, elderly bulletproof Jew is thrillingly rescued from evil Nazis by the Children of the Heart. Even Spielberg might think twice.'
But that's not how the story goes.
There is something more than a bit sentimental about the novel, I must admit. I gather Grossman did catch criticism in the Israeli literary press for daring to mix riotous fantasy with Holocaust remembrance. And to write such things without being a survivor himself? It borders on exuberance (if not quite "Eureka!") It might be indecent. In fact, Kertesz makes more or less this point in his speech (well, maybe this is his point):
One question interested me: What have I still got to do with literature? For it was clear to me that an uncrossable line separated me from literature and the ideals, the spirit associated with the concept of literature. The name of this demarcation line, as of many other things, is Auschwitz. When we write about Auschwitz, we must know that Auschwitz, in a certain sense at least, suspended literature. One can only write a black novel about Auschwitz, or - you should excuse the expression - a cheap serial, which begins in Auschwitz and is still not over. By which I mean that nothing has happened since Auschwitz that could reverse or refute Auschwitz. In my writings the Holocaust could never be present in the past tense.
Grossman does risk the hazardous, apparently unoccupiable territory between black novel and cheap serial - risks a sort of abomination of sentimentality. Refuses the moral duty of maturity, which is under the circumstances a duty to be old and morally exhausted. And what he is looking for in this seeming desert between workable possiblities is a powerful wellspring of Romanticism and redeemed childhood. Which is, on the one hand, a way of avoiding the dangers of sentimentality; on the other hand, even riskier in these part.
Maybe you can see how Grossman connects up to stuff I've been discussing lately: he ventures to comment, by means of absurdly stilted genre fiction conventions of the sort on display in the Children of the Heart passage, on events apparently indecently beyond the expressive scope of such stock stuff. The Children of the Heart stories are rescue stories, apparently. But there are some rescue stories you shouldn't write, so it would seem. I suggest you buy Grossman's novel and read it and tell me what you think. It's not what you would expect from the passages I quoted, but I had to quote something.